Humanitarian Action

September 2015

I wrote this piece in September 2013 after the UK parliament had voted not to support missile strikes on Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. I reread it again this morning. With sadness, I feel it stands rereading, the fundamentals are no different and we are no different in our response to them. We are simply now witnessing on a vast and tragic scale the failure to address them. I hope we can find our way through this together to build somewhere better for us all.

Last week’s vote not to support potential military operations in Syria is not the first time the UK has taken a different stance to the US on the international stage. Differences have existed over Suez, Vietnam, The Falklands and Grenada. Although I’d like to think that Parliament’s decision was a principled one based on deep understanding, it also appears local Political expediency has trumped all other considerations. Cameron needed to be the global statesman. With a close-looking election in a couple of years there is too much unfortunate precedent for UK Prime Ministers sending in the troops at this point in the political cycle. Miliband needed to exorcise his party’s demons on Iraq and portraying Cameron as ‘Flashman’ never takes too much effort. The Tory right are lost in the mire of being proudly independent of everything, if somebody else is for it we should undoubtedly be against.

So in a vote based on a short-term limited intervention we managed to be so lost in our own considerations that we failed to really address the nature of the problem we faced. By June the BBC was reporting that over 93000 people had died in the conflict, including at least 1700 children under 10 years old. Over 2 million people have fled the country. This dwarfs the impact of the use of gas.

Syria has been deeply riven by violent factionalised politics for decades. Removing the oppressive dictatorship of Assad takes the lid off this in a way that may make Iraq look peaceful. If we are to engage in one act of targeted response to a chemical atrocity what responsibility will we take for the carnage that will follow?

Brutal regimes in countries with little recent history of other more benign forms of government are rarely replaced by peaceable western style democracies when they are toppled. It is ridiculously arrogant of us to feel that they should. It denies any understanding of the history and culture of the place. Such vainly egotistical ‘nation-building’ is a self-serving deceit.

Instead, by removing stable but wicked regimes a country is plunged deep into a roller-coaster of change. This descent into the unknown surfaces all the chaotic complexity of the local environment with all the added perturbance of external influence. Devoid of the rules from which albeit unpleasant order emerged, dark times descend as violent power struggles seek to shape what comes next. There is no guarantee it will be better. It has often been worse.

So this was what the vote was about last week in Parliament. A straight choice between leaving a brutal dictator to poison his people or condemning the country to years of murder and atrocity. No wonder MPs avoided the question and voted instead on the usual tribal lines.

The real need is to break this pattern. This requires an approach to international governance that is much wiser as to how difficult it is to recognise deep rooted social patterns and how hard it is to change them. If we are expecting a local population cheering on the streets, decking our liberating troops and tanks with garlands of flowers then we are returning them to something they have lost but valued, not hurling them into fear and uncertainty then departing.

The problems of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan pre-date this century and the one before it. If we wish to be genuinely supportive then we must recognise that our pious view of what constitutes ‘good’ will be challenged through the need to provide a long-term environment through which new and appropriate local forms of governance can emerge. Our record of doing this has been appalling. The partition of India is estimated to have cost half a million lives.

And yet even in our own countries we fail to really take on board what is known about how people can change. We are happier hiding behind posturing policies than accepting the necessity of changing ourselves to change the situation we are in.There is a dark irony to castigating a dictator for not changing when it may cost him his life when our political leaders view change amongst themselves as such a failing.

True global leadership means building a neutral space where all involved can find what is needed for a shared successful future. The UN, the US and the UK have all shown themselves incapable thus far of doing this. In such a circumstance, a vote on missile strikes is simply a vote about salving our own consciences. It is a long way from really caring about what happens in Syria. It is a long way from humanity.

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